I was always delighted by the sound of Myrna Loy’s elegant, bubbly voice. So naturally I was amazed to hear that she had nearly missed the step from silence to sound, as she told me when I interviewed her for a piece on the 50th anniversary of the talkies in The New York Times in 1977. Without this woman, could there possibly have been a “Thin Man”?


Myrna Loy, a minor player in the silents and a national treasure as Nora Charles in the "Thin Man" series, views the turmoil of the late 20's Hollywood from the contemporary calm of her New York apartment. "I was very worried about how my voice would sound. The first talkie I was up for was 'The Desert Song' [shown above] at Warner Brothers, playing the part of a not very trustworthy belly dancer. I had seen a stage performance of 'The Desert Song,' and I remembered that the girl had a sort of bastard North African French accent, and that's what I tried for on the test I made.

"Darryl Zanuck sat and watched the test with me. I was wearing nut-brown makeup and not too many clothes, and the scene I had to do was a difficult one in which I tell somebody off and throw back the money he has given me. I thought I was pretty good, considering the circumstances, but Zanuck turned to me and said, 'I don't know, you're awfully nervous.'

"So I said, 'You would be, too.'"

"Then he said, 'Well, I'm not sure you can handle this. We may put you in the movie, and then have to take you out.'"

"'In other words,' I said, 'you might have to give me the hook?'"

"'Yes,' he answered, 'that's right. But if you want to take a chance, you can.'"

"'Myrna,' I told myself, 'this is a bridge you've got to cross. They're dropping actors off like flies. You've got to do this, no matter what.' So I did it, and they didn't give me the hook.

"It was a dreadful time, believe me. If anyone says it wasn't, he just wasn't there. There was panic everywhere, and a lot of people said, 'This is ridiculous! Who wants to hear people talk?' They were people who loved the silent film, the great art of pantomime perfected by the comedians and by Griffith. So much of what happened was terribly unfair. The studios should have taken the time to train those people whose voices didn't match their screen images. Poor John Gilbert--I don't know what they expected him to sound like; his voice always sounded perfectly masculine to me. And I don't know what happened to Marie Prevost--she just disappeared."


To read Guy Flatley's "The Sound That Shook Hollywood" in its entirety--including interviews with Frank Capra, Raoul Walsh, Clarence Brown, Allan Dwan, Anita Loos, King Vidor and Buddy Rogers--click here.